James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Now I’m part of ‘profanity police’

Posted by James McPherson on February 14, 2012

At the bottom of my most recent post, I noted a couple of days ago that New York Times media writer Elizabeth Jensen cited that post in an article. Her embedded link brought more than 3,300 readers to this blog yesterday–more than double the previous record (from a few years ago when a link to a post appeared at the bottom of a CNN story. That’s also more readers than I get most months, since I gave up blogging almost daily in April 2009.

Not surprisingly, among the new readers were some folks who found fault–including one who apparently didn’t read my post very closely, let alone anything else I’ve written, since in a comment he referred to my comments as “right wing.” That made some of my conservative friends chuckle. And now the Atlantic Wire blog  and the liberal blog Con Games, among others, are apparently lumping Jensen and me in together with the “profanity police.”

“McPherson may be shocked to discover that movie stars ‘come across as a group of hormonal middle school students’ as the foul-mouthed bunch did in the magazine’s Oscar Roundtable, that may just be because he hasn’t spent enough time on set,” offers Con Games. And that’s certainly true, if by “not enough” one means “none.”

But of course I’m not terribly surprised by the juvenile behavior–just that Newsweek writer David Ansen seemed to be so enthralled by that behavior. Maybe Ansen hasn’t spent enough time on sets if he is so fascinated by such juvenile pap. I’ll repeat my previous quote: “I have no doubt that the stars used that language. I do doubt that it’s representative of how most of them behave most of the time. If so, let’s hope they stick to acting–they’re just not very interesting, if this is a realistic depiction.”

In fact, previous editions of Newsweek’s “Oscar Roundtable” can easily be found online. And while I won’t take the time to check right now, I’d be willing to bet that none of them–despite the fact that they, too, involve “movie stars”–include the amount of profanity found in the most recent version. In fact, the “new” Newsweek is the problem. And perhaps, according to the blogs, it’s a Tina Brown problem. Both blogs contain this profanity-landen quote (I don’t know which is the original source):

“Tina Brown watchers with long memories might recall a similar complaint dogging the editor after she took over The New Yorker in 1992. On the occasion of her one year anniversary at the helm of that magazine, Spy Magazine ran an item headlined ‘Fuck Yes, The New Yorker,’ that compared some of the words that appeared in The New Yorker before and after Brown took over. Among the words used under Robert Gottlieb, the magazine’s previous editor: ‘Intransigent,’ ‘avuncular,’ ‘ballyhooed,’ and ‘panoply.’ Among the words used under Brown: ‘fuck,’ ‘masturbatory soft porn,’ ‘warm piss,’ ‘fart,’ and ‘bitch.'”

I can’t say that I’ve ever been as big a fan of Brown as many other media watchers, and a previous much-ballyhooed Brown effort, Talk, was awful and blessedly short-lived. I do appreciate her occasional book reviews on NPR’s “Morning Edition”–which, perhaps ironically, I listen to on the same radio station that provided my “free” subscription to Newsweek.

Same-day follow-up: The “others” who have commented on this issue, with links to this blog, now include a New York magazine blog, the conservative Accuracy in Media, a blog titled “Caffeinated Politics,” and another seemingly liberal media blog from Bemidji, Minn.

Feb. 16: Mediabistro, an American University blog about public media, and many in the Twitterverse also have commented on the issue. Perhaps my favorite from the latter: One that quotes Sarah Palin to seemingly compare me to GOP contraception goofballs.

3 Responses to “Now I’m part of ‘profanity police’”

  1. This whole saga simultaneously amuses me and makes me cry on the inside. Amusing: you being called right-wing, which you touched on in this post. (Though our little discussion over Super PACs suggests that maybe you’re starting to trend that way. ~_^) Sad: that calling out a news publication on its excessive use of profanity means you’re now the profanity police.

    (Side note: I can attest to the fact that Hollywood is not known for its sparse use of profanity. My (admittedly brief) time as an intern in L.A. proved that those profanity-laced tirades are pretty commonplace, even though I was one of the lucky interns whose boss didn’t scream or throw things at me when I messed up. In fact, the instructors at the faith-based L.A. Film Studies Center pointed out that one of the best, yet most subtle ways people in the industry can express their faith is to not use language. It really makes you stand out.)

    I’ll be the first to admit that there are times and places where it is appropriate to use some profanity. I also admit that I use it far more often than is appropriate (though I do try my hardest to make sure I’m not using it in a derogatory way to anyone besides myself). But when you see as much profanity in a single issue as what you pointed out — profanity that I honestly don’t see much point for — and there’s not even an attempt to soften it? That’s when you have a problem. Largely because then the reader’s focus is taken away from the point of the article and is instead centered on that word. And then someone blogs about it and opens up a firestorm of criticism among larger blogs that erroneously labels him on the wrong side of the political aisle. :)

    Good on you for starting this up, though, Jim. Maybe if enough people speak out about it — and make an excellent point without needing to use derogatory language — then we could see things start to change.

  2. James McPherson said

    Somehow, Morgan, I can’t imagine you using profanity more often than is appropriate; I’ve seen you refrain in situations where most wouldn’t have. And maybe I am trending toward conservatism–Accuracy In Media moved me up to the lead in their version of the story, and today a commenter on the post before this one put me in the same sentence as Rick Santorum. :-) Thanks for the comment.

  3. […] Like many young future reporters, I once envisioned working for the New York Times. That wasn’t ever likely, and though Joanna and I love to visit New York, today I have no desire to ever live there or to again work as a journalist. Still, the Times probably remains the best American newspaper, and I’ve enjoyed taking students to visit. I appreciated being quoted in a Times story about Andrew Breitbart, and having a post (about profanity in Newsweek) from my media and politics blog cited in another story (and then elsewhere). […]

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